The admirable John Harris has a piece on Labour in Scotland in the Guardian this morning: "'There's a lot I'm still learning': can Kezia Dugdale resurrect Scottish Labour?" The new Scottish Labour leader has been posted missing since Jeremy Corbyn took over last September, and internecine conflicts on more or less everything broke out in the parliamentary party. The chain reaction of Maoist stunts, bad appointments and feeble speeches has left Kezia gasping for political air, with only five months to go until the next Holyrood election.
29% of the Scottish public still can't place her. With the head office in turmoil, and the board at war, nobody gives a damn about a branch office pootering on under the leadership of a pleasant but ineffective regional manager. Oldham may have been stoutly defended, but Corbyn's unfocused leadership is doing precisely nothing for his comrades further north. John Harris met Dugdale after First Minister's question time in Holyrood, securing his headline quote from the mildest of mild enquiries about her encounters with Nicola Sturgeon.
I ask how it went, and she pulls a half-grimace. “It kind of puts to bed any suggestion that how we do politics in the Scottish parliament is vastly different from Westminster,” she says. “It’s still very combative – quite fiery exchanges.”
Is that to say that when things are like they were today, Dugdale doesn’t like it?
“Erm… I don’t enjoy it. I endure it. I recognise it’s part of my job, but that’s 10 minutes of my week.”
Does she think Sturgeon enjoys it?
“Erm… yeah, I think she probably does. She’s 16 years a politician. It’s taken her a long time to build up the skills and the credibility, and polish the talents that she clearly has. She’s at the top of her game, and this is a chance to show those skills off.”
And how long does Dugdale give herself before she gets to that point?
“Look, I’m acutely aware that I’ve just been an MSP for four and a bit years,” she says. “You know? I’m 34 years old. There’s a lot about life, a lot about politics, that I’m still learning. A lot of the things I’m doing as leader, I’m doing for the first time. But there are things I do know a lot about, and there are lots of things I’m incredibly passionate about: education, tackling poverty, female inequality. And on that stuff I’m 100% on my game. But I think it probably does take a wee bit of a while. She’s had 12 years more than I have.”
My first reaction? What a nice, unguarded way Kezia has about her, generous about her opponents with no attempt to gloss or conceal her inexperience or the challenges of her new role. From the outside peering in, it has looked like a steep learning curve. And here we have it confirmed, in Kezia's own words. There's no swagger here, no assertive declarations of unshakeable confidence. No Apprentice style windbaggery. No "I will be First Minister." No "I'm ready, John. I'm ready to lead."
Compare and contrast with Dugdale's immediate predecessor. "Fighting" Jim Murphy proclaimed from the get-go that he was “applying for the job of First Minister.” He strained every sinew to give the impression of being a scrappy and aggressive alpha. It is a good and sweet thing to wear elderly soccer shorts for your country. By his perished elastic shall ye know him, the chosen one. He fears not the Nats nor the dark of the night. Our knight and deliverer. A runner. A striker. Amen.
Dugdale is - thankfully - above ludicrous escapades of this kind. She is self-aware. She doesn't bullshit. She doesn't radiate that toxic sense of complacency and entitlement which for so long characterised Labour politics in this country. Dugdale's unstudied candour may make you think better of her. But with just months to go until the Holyrood election, with just months left to persuade the Scottish people that Sturgeon should be evicted from Bute House -- isn't this just a little naive? The public are a capricious lot. Honesty, yes. A virtue. A bit of humility too goes far. And self-doubt, in healthy quantities, is essential. But you also need true grit. Steadfastness. Guts. Naïfs and novices need not apply.